One of the biggest NBA stories of the last week was the fact that LeBron James applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office to trademark the phrase “Taco Tuesday.” The application was looking for protection to use the phrase across multiple media, including “downloadable audio/visual works,” podcasts, social media, online marketing, and “entertainment services.”
That application was officially denied on Wednesday because, as the patent office told the New York Times, the phrase was “a commonplace term, message or expression widely used by a variety of sources that merely conveys an ordinary, familiar, well-recognized concept or sentiment.”
You know what day it is …
— ESPN (@espn) August 7, 2019
Case closed, right? Not exactly.
The reason that this was a news story wasn’t because people are understandably emotional about enjoying a taco on the second day of the workweek. Nor is it really about the world’s greatest basketball star’s use of a common phrase. Nor is it about the letter of the typically snoozy trademark law. This is about power and control. And it’s not a good look for our guy, King James.
You already know what today is….. Yup you guessed it. ???? TUEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSDAY????????????????????????
— LeBron James (@KingJames) July 30, 2019
The whole reason LeBron sought the trademark for “Taco Tuesday” was because of the popularity of his fun social posts around his own enjoyment and enthusiasm for tacos on Tuesday. You know what doesn’t scream “fun” and enjoyment”? Seeking a lawful way to prevent anyone else from using a common phrase. For the love of guac, it was a whole plot point in The Lego Movie.
Now, of course, lawyers will point out that a trademark is not the same thing as a copyright and doesn’t bestow ownership. A trademark provides legal protection for those who spend considerable time and money developing an association to a certain word or phrase in a specific context. It doesn’t necessarily stop others from using the word or phrase overall. Apple obviously can’t stop us from referring to the fruit by the same name. Part of that is because it would be bonkers, but the other is that no one would ever confuse a Granny Smith for an iPhone. One is food, the other a tech product. When it comes to LeBron and Taco Tuesday, though, none of that is the point.
The point is this move, however pragmatic it may be from a business or legal perspective, reeked of greed and opportunism. What matters is that it looks like James was trying to own something he didn’t invent, for his own gain. Remember when Donald Trump tried to trademark “You’re fired”? This move just wasn’t consistent with James’s thoughtful every-guy image and personal brand of empowerment.
James’s spokesperson says the entire reason for the trademark application was in fact to protect James from others who may try to control and restrict the use of the phrase “Taco Tuesday.” But lawyer Josh Gerben told the Times that if Mr. James really did want to play liberator instead of conqueror, he could file a “petition to cancel” that voids another trademark, therefore opening the phrase up for anyone to use without fear of legal consequences. This trademark denial now gives him the opportunity to do that.